'The Alchemy of High-Performing Arts Organizations, Part II: A Spotlight on Organizations of Color' Released

The new report is designed to inform other arts organizations in their own approach to financial sustainability.

By: Mar. 10, 2021
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'The Alchemy of High-Performing Arts Organizations, Part II: A Spotlight on Organizations of Color' Released
SMU DataArts, in partnership with The Wallace Foundation, today released The Alchemy of High-Performing Arts Organizations, Part II: A Spotlight on Organizations of Color, which explores how leaders of these organizations viewed the reasons for their success along with challenges they face. Co-authored by SMU DataArts Director Zannie Voss, Ph.D., and SMU DataArts Research Director Glenn Voss, Ph.D., the new report aims to inform other arts organizations in their own approach to financial sustainability. The full report is available at wallacefoundation.org and at culturaldata.org.

Based on research conducted in August and September 2020, the report finds commonalities among 11 arts organizations of color in dance, music, theater, and multidisciplinary performing arts, as well as 10 community-based arts organizations, each with a proven record of high performance.* These 21 organizations self-identify as serving predominantly Black, Indigenous, Hispanic/Latinx, Arab American, or Asian American communities, and are located in 13 cities around the country. The organizations are also diverse in budget size, ranging from $146,000 to $15 million.

As the COVID crisis continues, challenges for these and other organizations persist, but notably more than 80% of the arts leaders interviewed indicated that their organizations are financially stable despite the economic hardships caused by the pandemic. While the initial report, The Alchemy of High-Performing Arts Organizations, did not not specifically focus on organizations of color, both reports suggest that deep community engagement and high-quality programming have been critical to financial health. Because the second report also takes into account the impact of the pandemic, its findings provide additional insights that may help other organizations consider potential strategies for recovery.

"Now more than ever, it is essential that we build our collective understanding of what fuels financial stability for arts and cultural organizations, especially for those that primarily serve communities of color," said Zannie Voss, SMU DataArts director. "The COVID-19 pandemic and racial justice movement have exposed the inequities that these communities face, and research shows that the nonprofit arts and culture field in general has not been inclusive or equitable. Yet organizations like those in this study, whose work is rooted in communities of color, receive far less support, recognition, and attention from funders and society as a whole. "

Researchers used a quantitative method called stochastic frontier analysis to identify a set of 21 organizations that performed better than expected given their size, location and other factors1 . To gain insights on how these 21 organizations achieved high performance, researchers interviewed the organizations' leaders. In examining their experiences, researchers identified a common "mental map" that these leaders followed, linking strategic choices to outcomes. Phase II interviews reinforced the conceptual model that emerged in the initial report, but with some differences. Leaders of the organizations of color emphasized their reason for being is rooted in serving their communities' needs through high-quality programming, and how deeply embedded they are in the fabric of the community. More than half of the organizations were created to serve needs where no similar services existed locally or where there was a lack of opportunities for artists of color. In contrast to Phase I, none of the leaders mentioned changes in consumer preferences or declining participation in the arts as obstacles. Instead, Phase II interviewees highlighted the adaptive capability that has been integral to their success. Several Phase II interviewees indicated, in comparison to Phase I, several challenges their organizations face due to environmental threats of racism, gentrification, and lack of equitable access to funding. In addition, Phase II interviewees emphasized organizational capacity limitations due to low compensation levels and staff resources, which leads to difficulty recruiting high caliber talent and to staff burnout.

The report includes excerpts from the interviews, including the following insights:
  • On the relationship between community orientation and high-quality programming:
When you build community with a group of people that have been historically underrepresented, it builds a lot of loyalty. Organizations rooted in their community are very valued because it's where people find their people. We give Asian Americans a home, representation, high-quality art and projects they want to work on.
-- Lily Tung Crystal, artistic director, Theater Mu (St. Paul, Minn.)
  • On being responsive to community needs:
I've learned that in order for us to have the future we envision, radical change is necessary -- not just when it comes to fundraising but reimagining what it means to serve and be a nonprofit. What's really precious is our relationships and the people we serve. When their needs change, we have to change with them.
-- Steffanie Rosalez, chief executive officer, Grandville Avenue Arts & Humanities (Grand Rapids, Mich.)
  • On adaptive capability:
The secret for us is being nimble and multidisciplinary. In this pandemic, our performance foot was cut off and our education foot was cut off. Our media division has been called upon to develop content and really support the other areas now. The other big factor for us was having as little overhead as possible. We don't own a building. We rent our rehearsal space hourly. When all your programs collapse, all your expenses collapse as well.
-- Juan Díes, executive director, Sones de México Ensemble (Chicago)
  • On distributed leadership and organizational culture:
You can't do it alone. Shared leadership is essential. I've had to learn a lot as a white leader of an organization that serves a community of people of color. It's essential that others on the senior leadership team be people of color who identify closely with the community. I want any of our kids to feel like they could do my job and be successful.
-- Maureen Dwyer, executive director, Sitar Arts Center (Washington, DC)

"This report suggests that successful arts organizations of color are part of their communities' DNA, and they are critical to the arts ecosystem," said Bahia Ramos, The Wallace Foundation director of arts. "We hope that this report, alongside others commissioned by Wallace, can help inspire new thinking and strategic approaches to relevance and resilience."

The Alchemy of High-Performing Arts Organizations, Part II: A Spotlight on Organizations of Color, can be downloaded free of charge at wallacefoundation.org or culturaldata.org, including background on methodology, conceptual models, and Part I of the report.

Today, Wednesday, March 10, at 1:00 p.m. EST, Wallace will host a conversation about The Alchemy of High-Performing Arts Organizations, Part II, as the latest installment in the virtual series Reimagining the Future of the Arts. Zannie Voss and three study participants will discuss how the findings can help arts organizations navigate challenges and build financial resilience. To learn more and to RSVP for the session, please click here.